USA History and El Camino de Santiago

A little Americana history and the Camino. I recently learned that our second President John Adams walked or rode on mule back the Camino backwards. For much of the journey, Adams followed the Camino de Santiago trail across Spain with his 12 year old son, John Quincy Adams

This journey of two future US presidents is the stuff that Hollywood movies are made of.

The ship carrying John Adams started sinking in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean!

Adams was chosen almost unanimously by Congress to travel to France. It was November 1779 and Adams was being sent as minister to negotiate treaties of commerce, and most importantly – peace with Great Britain, if it should come.

As the threat of sinking shot through Adams’ mind, he probably regretted bringing his two sons on board with him, twelve-year old John Quincy and nine-year old Charles.

When a sailing ship of those days ran into trouble on the vast Atlantic Ocean, the captain and crew were totally alone. No SOS distress signal could be sent to nearby vessels; no GPS coordinates could be flashed to friendly coast guard monitoring stations of all nations.

The ship just silently sank with all crew and passengers on board. Usually no sign of the vessel or people was ever found.

Just a couple days after having set sail from Boston on November 15, 1779, the doomed French frigate – le Sensible – with the Adams entourage on board, sailed into a storm.

The captain immediately began to have the icy water pumped out, crew and passengers alike all working the pump frantically twenty-four hours a day.

The leak got worse, so a second pump had to be installed and used. Even with the group’s best pumping efforts, the leak was getting worse. The ship was sinking!

The question was whether the boat would make it to any land before it totally sank into the freezing Atlantic waters.

The Captain Chevalier De Chavagne decided that their only chance would be to try to make it to the first friendly port they could get to.

In 1779, that meant Spain, an ally with France against their common enemy – Great Britain.

In the morning mist of December 7, 1779, the rocky piece of triangular land called Cape Finisterre was spotted.

It was the westernmost tip of Spain and for many centuries considered to be the end of the earth.

John Adams was now stuck on the northwestern tip of Spain, almost 1,000 miles from Paris, not knowing if he should wait for ship repairs (which could take months, if possible at all) or just hoof it from Spain to France?

For the week following the port landing, Adams was wined and dined in El Ferrol by Spanish and French officers, chief magistrates and local dignitaries like the French Consul from Coruña.

Adams was gracious, but impatient. “Yesterday, I walked about the Town but there is nothing to be seen …“… very few Horses and those very small and miserably poor; Mules and Asses were numerous but small.

There was no Hay in the Country: The Horses, Mules &c. eat Wheat Straw.” One night he was taken, grudgingly, to an Italian opera, “… a dull Entertainment to me.” But Adams’ sweet tooth perked things up a bit for him: “Breakfasted on Spanish Chocolate which answers the Fame it has acquired in the World.”

The next morning, Tuesday, December 14, “We arose at five O Clock;” Adams and entourage were sailed around to the southern tip of the bay from El Ferrol to La Coruña.

There Adams wrote, they “mounted our Mules. Thirteen of them in Number and two Mulateers … We rode over very bad roads, and very high Mountains” to reach the old, walled city of “Corunna.”

He begged the French for money and weapons to kill the British. The French hesitated. They weren’t pleased that the American diplomat didn’t speak French (bien sûr!). Nevertheless, the French agreed to help this rebellious America terrorist.

It was June 1779, three years into the American Revolutionary War. Without French assistance, America may not have turned into the nation it is today.

This partly explains why Americans returned the favor when they helped to liberate France from the Nazis 165 years later.

This man, who traveled much of El Camino de Santiago in reverse, from Fisterra to Paris, to save our nation, returned a hero and became America’s first Vice President, serving under George Washington.

Later, American elected this man to become the second President of the United States. His name was John Adams.

And the rest as they say is just history on this 1000 year old pilgrimage.

Buen Camino